There’s a massively unhelpful misconception out there that insight somehow defies definition. Can we really look the world in the eye and say with a straight face that insight is all-important, but we’re not telling you what it is? In a word, no.
In an age where nearly every human and commercial phenomenon is measured, bench-marked and analyzed within an inch of its death, where businesses of immense scale are built on the premise of giving away things of value solely to acquire the sellable data beneath them, and where the relentless march of the digital algorithm threatens to neuter those precious human gifts we call intuition and instinct, this highly loaded term insight has been bought, sold, sliced, diced, diluted and bastardized with liberal abandon.
Today, companies great and small face an unprecedented need for the growth that transformational innovation can unlock, and insight is the hard-edged flint from which innovation’s brightest sparks fly, but you can’t get sparks by banging marshmallows together. Much of what is touted today as insight is merely information in sight–insight’s distant ancestral cousin at best. What’s helping this unhelpful dilution run rampant is that so much about insight remains shrouded in ambiguity—starting with the seemingly simple task of defining it…
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart penned this classic line in 1964. He was talking about porn, and by refusing to sully his hands with the messy business of defining it, he instantly embedded “I know it when I see it” in the lexicon. (He also avoided the full frontal assault on the nation’s innocence that any definition authored by nine blushing septuagenarians would have unleashed.)
The problem for innovators is that Stewart’s non- definition could be airlifted verbatim into the nebulous conversation around insight. It’s murky at best. On innovation’s front lines, where there is no shortage of unknowns in play already, that’s nakedly unhelpful.
No matter where you hunt for definition, you find scant satisfaction. Try the handy digital dictionary bundled into Microsoft Word and you get this…Insight (noun): 1) perceptiveness, 2) clear perception, 3) self-awareness, or 4) perception that hallucinations are not real. (No, you’re not hallucinating. It really says that.)
Webster calls it “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” (This captures insight more as a capability than a thing.) IDEO’s Tim Brown is no more helpful: “That insight cannot yet be codified, quantified, or even defined—not yet, at any rate—makes it the most difficult but also the most exciting part of the design process.”
Can we really look people straight in the eye and say insight is all important, but we’re not telling you what it is? In essence, you’ll know it when you see it?
Being paid handsomely to help companies see opportunities they can’t readily see themselves, we probably owe the world a better answer. If not the masses, surely the pros have a straight-laced, straight-faced answer. A casual polling of some of the best and brightest at Fortune
100 companies along with highly respected researchers who buy and sell insight daily yields definitions like these: It’s the a-ha…It’s that door opener that says, hey, you’re talking about me…It’s that goose bump moment…It’s an epiphany!
These definitions aptly capture the wind that gusts through our hair when a great insight bursts into the room. (Yes, we know it when we see it!) But they don’t even flirt with defining the thing we’re actually reacting to. It’s like describing Parliament Funkadelic as music that makes you want to boogie. OK, that’s the response, but what’s the music?Between the capability that begets it, and the reaction that comes in its wake, it seems we’ve got insight surrounded. But we still aren’t quite touching it.
Fresh insights about insights come from our Head of Research, Dr. Barbara Nurenberg, Ph.D.—a trained psychologist with an extraordinary gift for seeing through the layers of fog to what lies beneath.
“You want to know who really gets insight? The Psychoanalysts! It’s their professional bread and butter. They define it metaphorically as seeing with the eyes of the mind to make connections…a powerful integration and synthesis that, once put together, forms a new perspective. The result is an analyst being able to say ‘Look!’ to the patient, or the patient saying ‘Eureka’ to himself. The ‘a-ha’, however, is only half of the story. Yes, an insight is an end point—an intuitive leap, a synthesis of data—but more importantly, it’s a starting point, valued so highly in therapy because it holds the potential for self-change.”
This theme of potential for change, conspicuously absent from the litany of definitions in circulation, is for those of us on the innovation front lines, the defining characteristic of great insight—the kind capable of igniting transformational innovation.
Potential for change is the reason great innovators get goose bumps from great insights, which hurl open the gates to new possibilities that weren’t visible before. This innate potential is the genetic trait that separates the merely interesting from the catalytic.Pivoting on this core idea of potential for change, we get to the definition that’s pinned to our wall at Fahrenheit 212, and that we teach our people to obsess about in our daily pursuit of transformational innovation for the world’s great companies. In the pursuit of transformational innovation, an insight is a fresh, potent and energizing truth.
Perfect? Of course not. But massively more useful than any other we’ve seen. A little deconstruction shows how useful it is, both in defining what we’re chasing, and filtering wheat from chaff, flint from marshmallow. To deconstruct it, start at the end.
Physicists, engineers and architects obsess over tensile energy and strength. To innovators, great insights are spring- boards with tensile value. Throw the weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions.
Yes, your honor, there’s a noun. A thing called truth. To be a truth is to be resonant and reflective of meaningful underlying reality. It doesn’t mean an insight has to be universally true. Great insights are often found at the bellwether fringes. But it has to be true and ring true.
In pursuit of transformational innovation, an insight can either be a truth about a human experience, aspiration, unmet need or tension, or about a business, category, strategic ambition, product or analog that points the way to profitable opportunity. (More on these commercial dimensions in a minute.)
It is a fresh truth because if we’ve heard it before, chances are it’s a topical observation, evident to all, rather than a bona fide insight. Insight is a form of competitive advantage born of seeing things that our competitors can’t. Old truths are table stakes, likely to be widely recognized across the competitive set, and therefore not a source of new competitive advantage. Even if we’re hunting for a new solution to an age-old problem, and leveraging accrued institutional knowledge, fresh answers require fresh perspective, be it from new depth of understanding, new connections between phenomena we didn’t realize were connected, or some other source of new edge. But if it’s not fresh, it’s more likely to offer foundational understanding than catalytic ignition.
A fresh, potent truth, because there are many deep underlying truths about life or a business that are merely interesting cul de sacs. (While it’s true that the human eye can perceive more than a million colors, there isn’t much innovation you can build off it, and it’s not really an insight.)
To provide the sparks we need, our insights have to be richly laden with opportunity for transformation and new possibility. The potency we need usually comes from an unresolved tension. Physicists, engineers and architects obsess over tensile energy and strength. To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value. Throw the weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions. There is no prescription for the nature of that tension — functional, emotional, experiential, interpersonal, sensory or financial tensions, or simply unfulfilled aspirations are all viable ways in.
A fresh, potent energizing truth because yes, our reaction does matter. Insight needs to inspire and ignite ideas and action among the people it touches. Forget the images of the lonely inventor in the garage. Innovation is a team sport and great insights will electrify and galvanize teams around a sense of new possibility. No, we can’t define insight solely by the reaction it creates. But it’s still a critical piece and source of its value.